Back to school: Japanese language

Whelp.. I went there.. Back to school for the first time in I don’t know how long. It’s only one night a week, but since every journey begins with a single step, this is as good a place as any.

Japanese A1, part 1 (of 6!!), designed for those of us with no idea how the Japanese language actually works or where to start. The goal was to finish the A1 level in its entirety before my next planned trip to Japan, but the courses don’t run close enough for that to happen. With the current speed, it will take me 3 years in total to finish them all… Still! It is an enjoyable evening, and my class mates are a lovely bunch. So far we started out with 18 students, and are now 10.

Now obviously, school requires school books. And (equally?) obviously, as Hermione Granger’s estranged evil twin, I read far more than the required curriculum. With a wealth of sources available in this day and age, the selection can be quite overwhealming. And yes… I’m feeling rather old, going through all the interactive web pages and apps that are available across platforms. Now luckily, I own both Android and IOS devices, and can thus enjoy the best of both worlds.

School requires Genki 1 with workbook, and the Japanese for Young People kana workbook for now, with Kanji coming up later. – More on those and the other sources I use below.

Our classes are led by a cheerful middle-aged lady, whos passion for teaching and cultural background provide very enjoyable lessons. Classes progress at a leasurely pace, with loads of practical exercises to get us actively using the language. Have been thinking that joining a community or creating a study group would be a neat idea to gain further immersion, but for the time being, reading the news and listening to pod casts will have to do. I’ve found several that are beginner friendly, designed to be simple and slow enough that complete newbies can follow easier. Although admittedly, with less than half of the kana and only a hand full of kanji learned so far, a´reading any text and understanding it is a bit of a stretch at the moment.

So back to business! In addition to the required curriculum, I picked up Japanese from Zero, Kanji Look and Learn, Kanji from Zero and Basic Kanji vol 1. I’ve always believed that each source has its own merits and unique ways of conveying a message, and thus the more sources you consult on the same matter, the more solid your knowledge becomes. A well laid foundation lends itself to easier development later on, so I’m all for spending copious amounts of time on learning and revising the basics of anything.

2B15C640-9E27-4A4E-8649-2EFBD4BC202CGenki 1 is considered by many to be the ‘gold standard’ as far as course books are concerned, this heavy hitter covers vocabulary and grammar early on, and starts introducing kanji already in chapter three. I feel that this book series assumes you’re in it to learn it, and learn it well. While the structure and content (aimed at classroom lessons) isn’t for everyone, I personally found it quite decent. I do, however, find it a bit confusing to use as an outright reference book. When you get to certain exercises later on, I do sometimes need to go back to check certain words or phrases. The way this book progresses, it means a lot of skipping here and there to find the right page, even if I tag each section. Might make my own supplementary list fort he next course, adding key pages to a separate binder. :p

Who’s it for? I’d say anyone who is aiming to learn more than a few phrases and conversations needed for a holiday, and get right into the nitty gritty.

The books aren’t cheap, and will set you back £65 (720 NOK at the time of writing) for the text book, and another £20 (220 NOK) for the workbook.

There are three flash card/study help apps available (sadly, not free), for about £5 (55 NOK) each. If many reviews are any thing to go by, they aren’t anything spectacular. I can’t say one way or the other, as I’ve never tried them. Genki’s website offers further resources to the public, and worth a browse.


Made by the same company who gave us the Genki series, Kanji Look and Learn is a good supplement to learning and remembering kanji. Nothing more, nothing less. It helps you remember and visualise radicals by associating them with common images.

Will set you back £35 (390 NOK) for the text book and another £25 (280 NOK) for the work book.

I found them quite helpful and a handy side kick to other study material. I do, however, wish they had more than just the one book, to cover even more of the language. It’s possible that another book isn’t necessary once you cover the most of the material in these books already, I’ll let you know when I get that far..

Next one up is probably the most widely available locally; Japanese from Zero.


Quick and easy, gives you really good ways of learning to speak ´natural´, rather than 100% correct all the time. Perfect for you who wants to learn enough useful info to survive the wilderness while on holiday, but not necessarily be wanting to dig too deep.

It does go into grammar, but nowhere near as in depth as Genki. There are four in the series, and it seems you need at least 3 of them to cover the same material.

Cheapest of the lot, coming in at around £20 (220 NOK), I think it’s worth picking up if for nothing else than to whet your appetite for the language. Worth mentioning is that it has in integrated work book, so there’s no second purchase looming on the horison unless you’re up for vol two and beyond. Personally, this is my least favourite of the lot, with the progressive learning system it employs. I found it difficult to keep switching between the type sets, thus breaking concentration every second word. It does have some useful tips and tricks, but I feel it’s better to stick to one or the other.

JFZ also has a Web site, with tips, games and videos, all of which are free. They also have a subreddit, but it seems rather dead or near death.

I’ve been testing a plethora of apps as well, and there are quite a few decent ones available, depending on which platform you’re on. My favourites so far have been:

  • Learn Japanese! Free on IOS. My most used app, learn to write kana and get quizzed on sentence building, simple kanji etc. Very handy for the commute to work..
  • Tako’s Japanese. Free on IOS. A pair of cartoon squid teaching you kana and kanji through both study and mini-games. Super fun, well worth checking out.
  • Hiragana Pixel Party. Remember Patapon for the PSP? No? Well this app is along those lines. Tap the kana to the beat to create songs while trying not to let your army die from bumping into stuff when you make mistakes.. Just as addictive and frustrating as any game in this genre. Can’t put it down AND want to kill it with fire at the same time.
  • Kanji Tree. Free on Android. Learn kanji by possible readings, radical and stroke order, or use it as a dictionary!

I tried a whole bunch of others, but these few are the ones I use the most so far.

Do you have other apps you’d recommend?

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